AstraZeneca advice has just changed (again). Here’s what you need to know if you’re in lockdown

Originally published on theconversation.com

Sydney’s COVID outbreak has just prompted official advice on the AstraZeneca vaccine to change to encourage more people to get fully vaccinated sooner.

Now, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends people in outbreak areas have their booster shot at 4-8 weeks after their initial dose rather than wait for 12 weeks. ATAGI now also advises people in outbreak areas under 60 to “re-assess the benefits to them and their contacts” from getting an AstraZeneca vaccine now if the Pfizer vaccine is not available.

Advice for people outside outbreak areas remains unchanged.

Here’s how to make sense of the latest advice if you’re in an outbreak area.

The situation has changed

Getting vaccinated, like taking any medication, is a case of balancing the risks against the benefits. And clearly, when there’s a COVID outbreak such as Sydney’s, the potential benefit of vaccination just increased.

We know two doses of AstraZeneca vaccine (or the Pfizer vaccine) are really good at preventing you from serious disease and hospitalisation. There’s growing evidence COVID vaccines also reduce your chance of infecting others. And we know two doses are needed to improve your protection from the Delta variant, which is currently circulating in NSW.



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Now let’s turn to the AstraZeneca vaccine. In parts of Australia with low rates of (or no) community transmission, the advice remains to wait 12 weeks after your initial dose for your booster shot. This is the time needed for your body to mount the best immune response.

However, as case numbers in Sydney have climbed, we’ve had calls from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly for people in outbreak areas to bring forward their AstraZeneca booster shots. Now ATAGI joins them.

Will I be protected if I go early?

Leaving less than 12 weeks between your first and second doses of AstraZeneca is a trade-off. There is slightly lower vaccine effectiveness against serious disease compared to if you’d waited for the full 12 weeks, but you will have some protection. In an outbreak, some reasonable protection now may be better than remaining unprotected while hanging out for greater immunity later.

The difficulty is pinning down exactly how much the vaccine’s efficacy drops by going early. The only figures we have that chart the different lengths of time between AstraZeneca shots and the corresponding levels of vaccine efficacy come from earlier variants of the virus (before Delta). We don’t actually have the figures as they relate to the Delta variant, circulating in NSW right now.

With that caveat in mind, here’s the best data we have about how different gaps between first and second dose of AstraZeneca affect its efficacy. It’s the same data ATAGI has cited to explain its latest advice.


The Lancet, CC BY-ND

If you’ve decided to go early with your booster shot, don’t worry if you can’t book an earlier appointment than 12 weeks. Your first shot has already started you on the protective road.



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Should I have my AstraZeneca booster shot at 8 weeks rather than 12? Here’s the evidence so you can decide

What if I’m under 60?

Earlier advice was for Pfizer to be the preferred vaccine for people under 60. This was due to an increased risk of the rare blood clot syndrome known as TTS (thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome) associated with the AstraZenenca vaccine in this age group. This advice is still current for most parts of Australia.

But in outbreak areas, ATAGI now advises people under 60 to consider having the AstraZeneca shot now, if the Pfizer vaccine is not available. Again, in an outbreak, starting on your road to becoming fully vaccinated may be better than hanging on for a Pfizer shot, which may not arrive for a few months.

Yes, people under 60 are at increased risk of those rare clots compared to older age groups. But the risks are still small, and you should balance that with the potential benefits of vaccination during an outbreak.

Risk estimates of TTS are updated regularly as new cases are reported. The latest figures show if you’re under 60, your risk of TTS is 2.6 per 100,000 doses. If you’re aged 60 or over, the risk is 1.6 per 100,000 doses.



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Your GP or vaccine provider will also discuss what to look out for should you experience these rare blood clots. If you have symptoms including: a new severe and persistent headache (appearing a few days after the vaccine or one that does not improve after simple painkillers, and which may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting), abdominal pain, pin-prick bruising or bleeding, chest pain, leg swelling or trouble breathing in the few days to few weeks after the AstraZeneca vaccine, you will need to seek medical advice.

This could be due to the rare clotting syndrome and the earlier it is recognised the earlier it can be treated.

Common side-effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine include headache, muscle aches, fatigue, fever and pain or redness at the injection site. These usually start in the first 24-48 hours after vaccination and may last a few days. You can manage these with over-the-counter medicines for fever and pain, such as paracetamol.



Read more:
A history of blood clots is not usually any reason to avoid the AstraZeneca vaccine

One last thing to think about

If you are having trouble booking in at your local GP clinic, you can attend one of the NSW mass vaccination hubs, which may be out of your local government area.

Although you are permitted to leave the home for medical care (including vaccination), please only do so if you have no COVID symptoms, however mild.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The last thing we want to see is people spreading COVID while trying to get vaccinated, with the potentially devastating impact on health-care workers, clinics and the wider community.



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Nicholas Wood receives funding for a Career Development Fellowship from the NHMRC. He is a Churchill Fellow

A tougher 4-week lockdown could save Sydney months of stay-at-home orders, our modelling shows

Originally published on theconversation.com

Residents in Sydney, the NSW Central Coast, Blue Mountains and Wollongong today received confirmation their lockdown would be extended to at least 30 July.

But our modelling suggests it may take until the end of the year to get case numbers close to zero, unless more stringent measures are introduced.

NSW health authorities increased restrictions on Friday. These limit outdoor gatherings to two people, exercise to within 10km from your home, and shopping to one person from a household each day, with no browsing.

These restrictions are similar to Victoria’s Stage 3 and came on top of existing rules, which began on June 23, to only leave your home for four reasons: work/education, care/compassion, shopping for essential supplies, and exercise.

But additional measures – at least as strong as in Melbourne’s Stage 4 – are needed to get the greater Sydney outbreak under control.

For Melbourne’s second wave, this included closing non-essential retail, restricting movements to 5km from home and within the hours of 8pm to 5am, and mask-wearing outdoors.

COVID case numbers will fall if Victorian Stage 4 measures are applied in greater Sydney, for at least a month.

Our predictions

Our modelling shows that without the initial stay-at-home orders, the results would have been catastrophic (red line).

NSW’s updated level of restrictions (orange line, similar to Victoria’s Stage 3 + masks) would prevent daily case numbers from increasing further. But it’s not enough to eliminate community transmission before the end of the year.

But if Stage 4 restrictions were applied now (blue line), the epidemic curve would decline sharply.

It’s difficult to estimate the time to return case numbers from current levels to a seven-day average of less than five per day, but it’s likely to take at least a month.

So how did we reach these conclusions? We use two complementary modelling approaches to generate information about the measures needed to get case numbers under control.

Simulating people’s decisions

The first model, COVASIM, simulates individual people who reflect the diversity of the population. Individuals are allocated different numbers of daily contacts and can participate in various activities (for example going to school, work, bars/cafes, shopping, playing sport), which affect their risk of transmission.

People respond differently to COVID-19: whether they get tested, how long they wait before being tested, and how compliant they are with quarantine. For infected people, their infectiousness and disease prognoses also depend on their age and vaccine status.

COVASIM includes interventions such as testing, contact tracing and quarantine, and public health restrictions that can reduce transmission risk, such as masks and density limits, or the number of contacts.

We calibrated this model using extensive data from Melbourne’s second wave, then simulated a theoretical Delta variant outbreak. We wanted to know whether previous restrictions would be likely to contain the Delta variant, given improved contact tracing and limited vaccine coverage.

To produce a “Sydney-sized” outbreak, we ran the model with light restrictions until it reached a seven-day average of 30 diagnoses a day. We then applied three policy packages: no additional restrictions, restrictions similar to Melbourne’s Stage 3 + masks, and Stage 4 restrictions.

Looking at the whole city

Our second model, MACROMOD, takes the opposite view to COVASIM: it models what happens at the city level, instead of building up from the outcomes of many individual behaviours.

It assumes the epidemic proceeds as a series of periods of exponential growth or decline and is being updated daily as new daily case data becomes available.

MACROMOD was successful in describing Melbourne’s second wave (June to November 2020) and accurately predicted the time to reach zero cases in Melbourne under Stage 4 restrictions.

What does it predict for Sydney?

We modelled Sydney’s current outbreak with MACROMOD for 21 days from June 23, when stay-at-home orders began, to July 13.

The impact of the stay-at-home orders was expected to start by July 1. But we couldn’t detect any decrease in the exponential growth in COVID case numbers.

This tells us that despite the fine work done by contact tracers and the NSW public, the high transmissibility of the Delta variant requires a much more vigorous response.

We then projected the model forward to predict the impact of the extended controls on July 9, and a further hypothetical increase similar to Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions.

The model suggests that the extended controls may be enough to “flatten the curve”, but are unlikely to contain the outbreak.

Thankfully NSW still has public health levers it could use to get the outbreak under control. We found if Stage 4 restrictions were applied now, the epidemic curve would decline sharply.



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Margaret Hellard provides guidance to the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 response and received funding from the Victorian Government for the Optimise Study and COVID-19 modelling work.

Mike Toole receives funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Nick Scott provides guidance to the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 response and received funding from the Victorian Government for the Optimise Study and COVID-19 modelling work.

Romesh Abeysuriya provides guidance to the Victorian Government’s COVID-19 response and received funding from the Victorian Government for COVID-19 modelling work.

Allan Saul does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Facial recognition for gamers, app store bans for Didi: what’s behind China’s recent crackdown on big tech?

Originally published on theconversation.com

Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Over the past few weeks, the Chinese government’s crackdown on big tech companies has intensified. The giants have all felt the brunt of heightened regulatory scrutiny.

At the end of last year, Ant Group (which owns the payment platform AliPay) failed to go public on the stock market. Chinese regulators cited a lack of compliance with new fintech regulations, which were abruptly introduced a week after founder Jack Ma publicly criticised the existing regulatory regime.



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Since then, the calculated reining-in of China’s largest tech firms by the government continues unabated, culminating in several high-profile cases over the past month. Two of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, Taobao and Pinduoduo, were taken to task last week over online vendors publishing fake product inspection reports.

Meanwhile, China’s largest food delivery platform, Meituan, has been the subject of an antitrust probe since April.

Social media platforms aren’t spared either. The popular platform Xiaohongshu (which translates to “Little Red Book”) has come under regulatory scrutiny for enabling “wealth-flaunting” behaviour.

But these practices have been going on for some time. So what’s behind the government’s sudden choke-hold? And given the economic benefits these companies bring to China, is the government shooting itself in the foot, or are other forces at play?

The curious case of Didi

It used to be a source of great national pride when a Chinese tech firm was listed on a foreign stock exchange. On June 30 this year, Didi — China’s version of Uber which operates around the world and in Australia — achieved just that. It debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at US$14 per share.

The initial public offering (IPO) raised US$4.4 billion and valued the company at US$68 billion, making it the second-largest US IPO by a Chinese company, after Alibaba. Just days after the phenomenal success, however, Didi was abruptly pulled from China’s app stores, along with 25 other apps linked to the company.

From a height of more than US$16 per share, Didi shares have lost a third of their value to date. The company is now subject to a class action lawsuit from investors who bought into its IPO, for not revealing its ongoing legal issues relating to compliance with China’s data security regulations.

The Cyberspace Administration of China claimed Didi was guilty of serious violations of laws and regulations in the collection and use of personal data, the Global Times reported. But Didi has been in the Chinese market for more than nine years, so surely these issues should have surfaced sooner.

Analysts have speculated the Chinese government is more concerned the data owned by Didi — a company that accounts for about 90% of China’s taxi and rideshare services — would end up in the hands of the US government following its listing on the US stock exchange.

This data could be used to construct detailed travel logs of Chinese residents, with obvious implications for national security. This concern may be legitimate, as US government agencies routinely request data from even homegrown tech firms.

Firms have the right to challenge such requests. But this is naturally at the firm’s discretion, and a lack of direct control is something the Chinese government traditionally eschews.

The fallout from Didi’s regulatory troubles has spread more widely as other US-listed tech firms have also come under increased scrutiny, signalling regulatory reforms may be on the horizon.

China’s big tech firms are under the pump, with the possibility on new regulations on the horizon.
Shutterstock

The primacy of social good

To understand the rationale behind the Chinese govenrment’s recent moves, we must first understand the parallel universe that is China’s technological landscape. In China, technology must never be harnessed solely for an individual or organisation’s gain. Social good is always emphasised, as defined and enforced by the Chinese government.



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Didi’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange would have undoubtedly fuelled the company’s global expansion. But in the eyes of the Chinese government, it could have also hurt the nation’s collective interests. It remains to be seen whether this apparent contradiction can be resolved.

China’s collectivist approach to technology consumption is also evident in its regulation of mobile games.

This week news emerged that Tencent — which owns WeChat and is one of the largest gaming companies in the world — will use a facial recognition feature called “Midnight Patrol” to restrict the activities of under-18 gamers. Tencent said the feature was already being used in 60 games, with more additions planed.

In 2019, the Chinese government imposed a video game curfew on minors, banning them from playing between 10pm and 8am — allegedly to curb gaming addiction. South Korea is the only other country with such a curfew.

It’s expected the Midnight Patrol rollout will prevent minors from using their parents’ devices or identities to circumvent the curfew. Facial recognition trials for this purpose started in 2018, but Midnight Patrol is unique in its scale of implementation.

In 2019 the Chinese Government introduced a video game curfew for people under 18.
Shutterstock

From a Western point of view, such measures may seem a draconian violation of privacy and freedom. In China, however, they are generally lauded and welcomed. The prevailing view is tech firms may profit commercially from the exploitation of technology, but not at the expense of social good.

For consumers of Chinese tech services in Australia and other countries, the good news is these firms have always tried to differentiate their services for domestic and international markets.

For example, the massively popular video-sharing platform TikTok is named Douyin in China, where it abides by vastly different rules to the TikTok used by the rest us. And if there are privacy concerns, international consumers can always choose to not use these services.

Chinese consumers, unfortunately, don’t have this choice.

Barney Tan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

How do you teach a child to swallow a pill? Hint: use lollies

Originally published on theconversation.com

from www.shutterstock.com

When was the last time you swallowed a pill, be it a tablet or capsule? This morning or sometime in the past week? Now, can you remember the very first time you had to take a pill? Probably not.

Unlike your first kiss, there is usually nothing remarkable about the first time you take a pill. But taking solid medicines orally does not come naturally and chances are you had to be taught how to do it. And because you don’t remember how you were taught it can be hard for parents to figure out how to teach their kids to do it too.

But here’s how to make the learning process fun and safe.



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Is this necessary?

Before trying to teach your child to swallow a pill, first see if your child really needs to learn.

Most medicines commonly used by children under 12 years of age are readily available as formulations other than pills. These include liquids, suspensions, chewable tablets and suppositories. The liquids and suspensions usually come in palatable flavours.

Doctors can also write prescriptions to allow pharmacists to compound (make up) some drugs usually available as a pill into a suspension instead.

If these options aren’t available, you will need to teach your child to swallow a pill. You’ll also need to go down this path as your child gets older, their weight increases, and some of the child-friendly formulations are no longer suitable. That’s because the higher doses often needed can be impractical to give using children’s products. So it would be much easier and cheaper to use a tablet or a capsule.

However, don’t be tempted to crush or break a pill for them, or ask them to chew it, unless your pharmacist has given the go-ahead for that medicine. This can affect the way the medicine is absorbed, which could lead to an overdose.



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Turn it into a game

Teaching relaxation techniques, learning by imitation or modelling, and learning by repetition and exercise are all useful ways to teach pill swallowing. However, turning it into a game is popular.

First of all, this method is NOT suitable for children under five. The mechanics of swallowing are too difficult for them to understand and both you and the child are likely to end up frustrated. Also, the younger they are, the smaller their throat and the likelihood something will get stuck.

The basis of the game is to start your child trying to swallow very small, everyday foodstuffs and work your way up to things the size of a pill. Lollies (candy) are best because you don’t have to convince your child to play the game.

More importantly, lollies are water soluble so if there are any problems you can ask your child to have a big drink of water to break it apart. If you don’t know if the lolly is water soluble, test it first in a glass of water to see if it dissolves.



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Ready, steady, go!

Start your child on the smallest sized lolly. Ask them to sit up straight, facing forward, without tilting their head up or down. Ask them to take a sip of water before each lolly, to get them prepared for the swallowing action. Then ask them to place the lolly on their tongue (towards the back is best) and take another sip to wash it down.

If they can swallow that, move up to the next size. But if they can’t, ask them to chew and swallow it, and try again.

Snake lollies can come in handy and your child is unlikely to complain.
from www.shutterstock.com

Our version of the game uses lollies available in Australia, increasing in size: sprinkles (such as hundreds and thousands), Nerds, Tic Tacs, M&Ms (normal, not peanut or crispy), and then snakes.

With snakes, you can cut off and swallow the head, about the size of a pill, before cutting up pieces of the body to the same size.

Some dos

do joke around and make the activity fun. Get family involved as children need to be comfortable when playing

do make sure it’s the only activity they are doing. You want your child’s full attention

do give praise. The game is all about building confidence

do put the lolly into a soft food stuff if you want. Some children find lollies, or even real pills, easier to swallow if they are in a small spoonful of pureed fruit or custard. Don’t use peanut butter as that is sticky and hard to swallow

do consolidate their skill when they are finally successful. Once they can swallow a tablet or capsule sized lollie, keep your child’s confidence up by asking them to swallow an age-appropriate vitamin pill every now and then.

Some don’ts

don’t stop on a stuck point. If your child has difficulty with a particular sized lolly that day drop back down to the size they can do so you finish on a win

don’t use a sultana or peanut-based lolly. These do not dissolve in water and if they get stuck, become be a choking hazard

don’t ask children to lay on their back. This can make it more difficult to swallow. Instead just have them sit up straight. If they like, they can tilt their head forward to place the lolly in their mouth, and then when they are ready to swallow, they can tilt their head slightly back to help it go down.

Final take-home advice

Teaching your child to swallow a pill is not easy and is likely to take weeks. Most kids will get stuck at one size of lolly at some stage. And they’ll likely not be able to swallow the largest lolly the first time they try.

This is normal, so persevere and keep the game fun. Your child will get there.

Associate Professor Wheate in the past has received funding from the ACT Cancer Council, Tenovus Scotland, Medical Research Scotland, Scottish Crucible, and the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance. He is Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and a member of the Australasian Pharmaceutical Science Association. Nial is science director of the medicinal cannabis company Canngea Pty Ltd, a board member of the Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association, and a Standards Australia committee member for sunscreen agents.

Elise Schubert is a registered pharmacist and also receives a scholarship from the University of Sydney and Canngea Pty Ltd.

Why ‘inciting violence’ should not be the only threshold for defining hate speech in New Zealand

Originally published on theconversation.com

www.shutterstock.com

Hate speech regulation is hard to get right. As media law specialist Steven Price has pointed out, the challenge for a democratic society lies in targeting the harm hate speech is claimed to do while not capturing other legitimate forms of speech too broadly.

It’s true, the scope, enforcement and effectiveness of hate speech law must be calibrated carefully. But these are practical and mechanical questions about how hate speech laws might operate, not assertions that the harm in hate speech is something the law cannot regulate.

While I accept these practical difficulties exist, in my view the harm done by hate speech is clearly something the law should be concerned with. But we also can’t ignore persistent scepticism about the appropriateness of using the law to regulate this kind of speech.

When the Race Relations Commissioner floated the possibility of hate speech reforms in 2017, ACT Party leader David Seymour argued there were already adequate laws controlling defamation or inciting violence:

Those things are already illegal. Anything further is actually censorship and we should be just as worried about the state starting to decide what is acceptable to say as we should be about people saying nasty things.

The link to violence

The insistence on a link to inciting violence being a prerequisite for curbing free speech has been repeated several times since the government announced its intention to reform hate speech law after the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Opposition Leader Judith Collins has promised “the National Party will reverse any attempts Jacinda Ardern’s government makes to criminalise speech beyond the threshold of ‘inciting violence’.”



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Similarly, when a division of Auckland Council cancelled a venue booking for controversial Canadian speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux in 2019, a spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition said the organisation accepted “genuine hate speech” that incited violence or illegal activity should be blocked.

But curbing free debate under threat of disruption is neither desirable nor acceptable in a free and democratic society.

Not everyone who is sceptical about hate speech law reform takes this line. But it demands attention when the leaders of both major opposition parties and a significant lobby group insist a link to violence is required before hate speech regulation can be justified.

What other speech laws do

The problem with the argument, however, is that this isn’t how we treat many other existing forms of speech regulation in New Zealand law.

Defamation, for example, addresses the harm to a person’s reputation and the related effects this has on one’s ability to interact with friends, family, colleagues and the wider world.

The harm to those social bonds caused by defamation is seen as sufficient justification in itself to allow for civil damages to be recovered. No link to violence at all is required.



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Similar protections exist under laws governing invasion of privacy. These allow people to be sued if they share private facts about another person in a highly offensive way.

The harm here is to the dignity and autonomy of the affected person. Again, no link to violence is required, even remotely.

Catalyst for change: the report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch mosques.
GettyImages

Forms of harmful speech

One might argue these are civil wrongs and the proposed hate speech laws include criminal liability. But civil hate speech regulation is also proposed. Conversely, we already criminalise many kinds of speech with no link to physical violence.

Obtaining by deception and blackmail are two obvious examples. These focus on speech which, without threats of violence, causes a loss to the victim and/or a benefit to the offender.

No link to violence is required — in fact, no financial loss is required. The core of the harm covered by these offences is to the autonomy of the victim, which has been compromised by blackmail or fraudulent statements.

More generally, a diffuse public interest is upheld by offences such as perjury, which deals with systemic harm to the administration of justice, and public order offences, which uphold our collective right to enjoy public spaces.

None of these requires a link to violence. Moreover, the interests being protected – dignity, autonomy, collective public good – are exactly the sorts of things influential legal theorists argue are protected by regulating hate speech.



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Focus on the real concerns

In my view, then, the argument that a link to violence is a precondition of hate speech regulation is wrong.

This is not to say there are no good arguments against the government’s proposed reforms. This is hard to get right, and there are things that can and should be changed.

As Steven Price has also pointed out, the proposal is oddly equivocal about whether speech intended to cause hatred also has to cause (or be likely to cause) hatred in society.

As well, serious thought needs to be given to whether the the potential inclusion of every group protected from discrimination under section 21 of the Human Rights Act is overly broad in the context of hate speech regulation.

We should focus on those very real concerns – public submissions on the proposed legislation close August 6 – rather than insist on a threshold for speech regulation that our legal tradition simply does not require.

Eddie Clark does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Support package for Sydney better and more fit for purpose than JobKeeper

Originally published on theconversation.com

The economic support package announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is exactly what is needed, and just in the nick of time.

In a number of ways, in fact, it is more fit for purpose than the JobKeeper and JobSeeker policies that played such a key role in shielding the nation from the worst economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is support for workers who lose their jobs or have their hours cut, and incentives for affected businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.

In the face of what looks set to be an extended lockdown for Sydney, significant support was clearly needed. The federal government has rightly resisted calls to reinstate the JobKeeper wage subsidy, and opted instead for a new, more flexible scheme better suited to the circumstances.

There are two key planks of support, working together.



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Payments to individuals

The first is payments for individuals. For Melbourne’s lockdown in late May and early June the federal government provided up to A$500 a week to those losing more than 20 hours of work a week. It is boosting this to $600 a week. For those losing eight to 20 hours a week, the payment is increasing from $325 to $375. The liquid assets test that applied to the Victorian payments has been scrapped.

Critically, any worker who loses enough hours is eligible. That means the payment can help virtually all workers losing work due to the lockdown, at least to some degree, and gives businesses the flexibility to scale down by reducing hours while minimising the impact on workers. We can squabble about the generosity of the payment, but it is more than double the rate of JobSeeker.

Importantly, it means the cost of the lockdown is being shared by the federal and state governments, rather than just falling on businesses and workers. This provides confidence that lockdown decisions will be made entirely in accordance with the public health advice.

Payments to businesses

The second plank is a partnership between the federal and state governments to revive the cash-flow boost instituted at the beginning of the pandemic, before the federal government introduced JobKeeper.

Only businesses with annual turnover between $75,000 and $50 million are eligible. For those suffering a 30% decline in annual turnover (compared to pre-pandemic times), the payment will cover 40% of their payroll costs up to a maximum of $10,000 a week. To qualify, however, they must not lay off any staff.

This emulates one of the best features of JobKeeper by maintaining the connection between employers and employees through the crisis to speed the recovery once restrictions lift.



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Improvements on JobKeeper

In his press conference, the Prime Minister described the measures as targeted, timely, proportionate, scalable and able to be administered quickly and simply.

It’s hard to disagree.

One aspect that’s a big improvement over JobKeeper is that the turnover test is based on actual turnover, rather than projected turnover or trailing turnover, as with the earlier schemes. This should see the money better targeted to the businesses genuinely in need.

Another improvement is that it drops the cumbersome JobKeeper approach of paying employers a per-employee subsidy they were then expected to pass on to each worker at a fixed rate regardless of actual hours. This time businesses will get a payroll subsidy they can use however they see fit — so long as they don’t lay anyone off.

This should maximise flexibility, and minimise business failures and layoffs. And compliance should be straightforward to enforce via Business Activity Statements and Single Touch Payroll records.

But it is all a bit reactive

I do, however, see one negative.

Just as many ordinary Australians seem to have assumed and behaved as though the pandemic was behind us, so did the federal government in configuring its fiscal support measures earlier this year.

It was right to end the JobSeeker supplement and JobKeeper as the economy recovered. But it was wrong not to replace them with a suite of more flexible, contingent measures to be triggered in the event of future lockdowns. It should have foreseen the possibility of a future prolonged lockdown and been prepared for it, rather than be forced to play catch-up.

Following the announcement of these measures, the federal minister for government services, Linda Reynolds, said “our response will continue to evolve”. But what businesses and consumers have needed all along is certainty — to know that if things go pear-shaped there’s a plan and they will be looked after.

Without that certainty, consumers will hold back on spending and businesses will hold back on investment, putting a brake on the economic recovery.

Every Australian consumer, worker and business — in every Australian state and territory — needs to know today exactly how they’ll be supported should things get a lot worse or go on a lot longer than currently expected.

Steven Hamilton is Chief Economist at Blueprint Institute.

No, we can’t treat COVID-19 like the flu. We have to consider the lasting health problems it causes

Originally published on theconversation.com

Shutterstock

Earlier this month, the Australian government announced a four-phase plan to return us to something resembling normality. Under this plan, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, we will eventually treat COVID-19 “like the flu”.

The hope is vaccines will allow us to live with some transmission without many people getting seriously ill or dying.

But death and hospitalisation aren’t the only outcomes of COVID-19 we need to prevent. New research shows even young people can be left with chronic health problems after infection.

COVID-19 will always be a very different disease to the flu. We should aim to stamp it out like measles, not let it spread.

A common misconception

Many people think only the elderly are at risk from COVID-19. Looking at the statistics, it’s easy to see why that misconception came about.

A study of people who tested positive for COVID-19 during the second wave in the United Kingdom found only around 1% of children and 2-3% of young adults had to be hospitalised. In contrast, more than 10% of those aged over 60 needed to go to hospital.

The risk of dying from COVID-19 follows a similar pattern. Only one in 20,000 children who become infected are likely to die, compared to more than one in 100 adults over 60.

But these figures don’t tell the whole story. Many people who have had COVID-19 and survived haven’t returned to their previous state of health.



Read more:
Australia has a new four-phase plan for a return to normality. Here’s what we know so far

COVID-19 can cause lasting health problems

A study of people who were hospitalised for COVID-19 during the first wave in the UK found these patients were four times more likely to be readmitted to hospital and eight times more likely to die than a matched control group over an average follow-up period of four to five months.

The researchers found these people were particularly likely to develop diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease.

People can also experience complications after having the flu, but we’re seeing this more frequently with COVID-19, and the complications are more serious.

Even people who aren’t unwell enough to go to hospital with COVID-19 can experience complications.

A Sydney study found one-third of people with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 were left with persistent symptoms lasting at least two months, including fatigue and shortness of breath. More than 10% had impaired lung function.

This potentially life-altering condition has a name: long COVID.

Long COVID affects young people too

The UK’s Office for National Statistics has calculated about one in seven people who contract COVID-19 will experience persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.

They estimate nearly one million people are currently living with long COVID in the UK, and 40% of them have been living with the condition for over one year. Two-thirds report being adversely affected in their day-to-day activities as a result of long COVID, and 18% report they are limited a lot.



Read more:
The mystery of ‘long COVID’: up to 1 in 3 people who catch the virus suffer for months. Here’s what we know so far

While children are very unlikely to die from COVID-19, the Office for National Statistics estimate 7-8% of children and adolescents who get infected will develop long COVID.

They estimate 10,000 children and 16,000 adolescents in the UK have been living with long COVID for at least 12 weeks.

The condition is so common that the UK’s National Health Service is opening 15 long COVID clinics for children.

What does this mean for Australia?

COVID-19 is a very different disease to influenza, and our reopening plan should ensure it doesn’t get a foothold in Australia. The alternative would have huge economic and social costs, owing to the large number of people likely to be left with chronic health problems.

We can work towards reopening safely by first reaching herd immunity through vaccination.

With the emergence of more transmissible variants such as the Delta variant, we’ll likely need to vaccinate more than 90% of the population to achieve herd immunity. This is an ambitious goal, but we already achieve it as part of routine vaccination for measles in childhood.

To reach that target, we’ll need to offer vaccination to children and adolescents, who also need protection from long COVID.

Some have suggested vaccinating adults may be sufficient to reach herd immunity, but Israel has shown us this isn’t the case. New outbreaks linked to schools have forced the country to bring back a mask mandate and step up vaccination in adolescents.

To reach herd immunity, we’ll need to vaccinate children and adolescents against COVID-19.
Shutterstock

What else do we need to do?

It will take time to achieve herd immunity in Australia. So we’ll need to keep a strong quarantine system in place until we’ve got the job done.

We’ll also need to closely watch the situation overseas and be prepared to roll out a third booster dose in response to emerging variants.

We should also be prepared to give people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine a third booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine, when supplies are available.

While both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing severe disease, the AstraZeneca vaccine is slightly less effective at preventing infection overall.

We don’t know how well either vaccine prevents long COVID, but again, the best defence will be to have a high level of vaccination in the community.



Read more:
We may never achieve long-term global herd immunity for COVID. But if we’re all vaccinated, we’ll be safe from the worst

Inevitably, Australia will experience future outbreaks of COVID-19, just as we sometimes do with measles. But we should have a very low tolerance for the degree of transmission we’re prepared to accept.

The coronavirus is an airborne virus that’s more transmissible than influenza, and causes more severe disease. It’s not a flu-like illness and never will be.

Zoë Hyde does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Raze paradise to put in a biofuel crop? No, there are far better ways to tackle climate change

Originally published on theconversation.com

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We all know action on climate change is urgently needed. But that doesn’t mean a forest should be razed to build a wind farm. Nor should vast fields of a single crop be grown year after year – reducing the number of other species that can live there – even if the plant is used to produce renewable bio-fuel.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are the two greatest challenges to humanity and our planet. But they’re often dealt with by separate laws and policies, which can lead to perverse, unwanted outcomes.

Clearly, this siloed approach must change. This was recognised in a draft plan by the Convention on Biological Diversity, released overnight, which stated that biodiversity should not be harmed by efforts to tackle climate change.

But how do we ensure solutions to one of these wicked problems does not worsen the other? Some 50 of the world’s leading researchers on biodiversity and climate have released a report which sought to answer this question. Below, I outline the conundrums we tackled and the solutions we came up with.

Climate solutions should not lower the variety of species found on Earth.
Shutterstock

A world-first collaboration

Our report, released last month, represents the first ever collaboration between the world’s largest research and policy communities on biodiversity and climate – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

IPBES is an independent intergovernmental body that synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people. The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing climate science.

The word “biodiversity” refers to the variety of living things: all the animals, plants and tiny micro-organisms on Earth, including the genetic information they contain and the ecosystems they form.

Biodiversity loss, then, is a reduction in the variety of species in an ecosystem, a geographic area or the planet as a whole. Biodiversity, including extinctions, is currently declining at rates unprecedented in human history.

There’s a growing recognition that climate, biodiversity and human well-being are inextricably linked.

To date, biodiversity loss has largely been caused by human actions which harm land, rivers and oceans. However, research suggests worsening climate change will be the main cause of global biodiversity loss this century.

For example, climate change is causing marine heatwaves which threaten the existence of the Great Barrier Reef. Climate change also makes bushfires more intense and frequent, pushing species closer to extinction.

Biodiversity loss can also make climate change worse. For example, forests store large amounts of carbon, and their destruction is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions.



Read more:
Almost 60 coral species around Lizard Island are ‘missing’ – and a Great Barrier Reef extinction crisis could be next

Cutting down trees reduces biodiversity and makes climate change worse.
Shutterstock

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Bioenergy crops such as corn, canola and soybeans can be processed and used as a fuel for heat or energy. This can provide an alternative energy source to fossil fuels. And forest plantations storing carbon dioxide can be an effective way to reduce atmospheric carbon levels.

But these climate solutions can be bad for nature. Crop or forest monocultures greatly diminish the diversity of other plant and animal species the land can support. Such practices can also degrade ecosystems and damage native species.

Similarly, renewable energy technologies can harm biodiversity. For example, large-scale solar plants across vast areas of land can destroy animal habitat and disrupt wildlife movement.

Crucially, climate and biodiversity interventions can also be harmful to human well-being. Many communities in developing countries rely directly on nature for their everyday needs. Efforts to protect biodiversity by locking up natural areas in forest reserves can deprive local people of their lands and erode their food security.

What must be done?

Our report sets out key steps to protecting the climate, biodiversity and human well-being in unison. I outline these below.

Protect and restore carbon-rich ecosystems

This is the number one priority for joint action on climate and biodiversity. It is critical, however, that such processes involve – and consider the needs of – local communities. They must also take future climate conditions into account.

Slash carbon emissions

By storing carbon in forests, wetlands and other ecosystems, nature can do a lot to tackle climate change. But it can’t do everything. Ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed across multiple sectors of the global economy. Without this, it will be virtually impossible to restore and protect natural ecosystems.

Increase sustainable agricultural and forestry practices

Food systems contribute up to one-third of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The agricultural sector must urgently reduce waste. And if humans, particularly those in rich countries, eat less meat this will also help address emissions and biodiversity loss. In the forestry sector, careful species selection and management can mitigate climate while being good for biodiversity.

Eliminate harmful subsidies

Government subsidies for activities that harm the environment, such as burning fossil fuels, should be removed.

Subsidies that support the fossil fuel industry should be scrapped.
Shutterstock

Delivering a revolution

The above measures will not be easily achieved. And they are each contingent on revolutionary economic and societal shifts.

Unsustainable consumption and production are key causes of climate change and biodiversity loss. Our report calls for a shift in individual and societal values away from materialism. We must also challenge the dominant worldview which equates continuous economic growth with human well-being.

Justice and equity must be at the centre of our new ways of being. Indigenous and local communities should lead the stewardship of forest, lands and seas. And system-wide change should not disproportionately impact the already disadvantaged.

And all this will require coordinated action at local, national and global scales. This must integrate multiple knowledge systems and worldviews.

A bright future for people and nature is possible. But achieving win-wins across climate, biodiversity and society requires urgent, transformative and just action which addresses not only the symptoms, but the causes of our greatest problems.



Read more:
Even without new fossil fuel projects, global warming will still exceed 1.5℃. But renewables might make it possible

Michelle Lim was a co-author of the “IPBES-IPCC Co-sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change” discussed in the article.

Climate explained: is New Zealand losing or gaining native forests?

Originally published on theconversation.com

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CC BY-ND

Climate explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

In recent decades, has New Zealand lost forest (both native and exotic) or gained it, courtesy of the One Billion Trees programme? What about natural habitats like wetlands?

Apart from wetlands, land above the treeline, coastal dunes and a few other exceptions, New Zealand was once covered in forests from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

So was Europe, which basically consisted of a single forest from Sicily in southern Italy to the North Cape in Norway, before human intervention.

But since people arrived in New Zealand some 850 years ago, about three quarters of the country’s native forest area has been lost. About half of the loss happened before Europeans arrived, mostly through burning to clear large areas of native bush.

Most of New Zealand was once covered in native forest.
Shutterstock/Latitude Creative

In recent decades, the loss of native forest has slowed down. For example, in the first decade of the 21st century, we lost roughly 16,000 hectares of native forest, which translates to a loss of about 0.2% of the remaining total area covered in native forest (about 7.5 million hectares). The error associated with such estimates is considerable, though, because land cover is complex and highly fragmented.



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A billion trees

According to Global Forest Watch, the drivers behind the more recent losses of native forests include exotic plantation forests, urban developments and wildfires. Indeed, the total land area dedicated to exotic plantation forests increased by about 200,000 hectares per decade between 1990 and 2017.

Commercial plantations of exotic pines have replaces native forests.
Shutterstock/Cloudia Spinner

So what has the One Billion Trees Programme achieved in comparison to these changes?

The project’s aim is to double the current planting rate and plant one billion trees between 2018 and 2028. The latest report shows about a quarter of this goal has been achieved in terms of the number of trees planted. In regards to forest area, 25,557 hectares have been reforested, about half of it with natives.

This is a remarkable achievement in light of the losses cited above and the short duration of the programme.

About a quarter of a billion trees have been planted so far, half of it native species.
Shutterstock/Kira Volkov

Saving remaining peat bogs

We think of forests as our guardians of carbon — and indeed, an aged New Zealand forest can hold about 350 tonnes of carbon per hectare. But intact peat bogs, such as the Kopuatai dome in the Waikato region, can hold up to 1,400 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

But peat bogs only store carbon if they remain wet. Once drained, they begin to emit carbon dioxide. Almost half of New Zealand’s peatlands are in the Waikato, but of a total of 89,000 hectares only 19,400 hectares remain in a natural state.

The Kopuatai dome is New Zealand’s largest intact peat bog.
Georgie Glover-Clark, CC BY-SA

The Kopuatai bog itself is surrounded by dairy farms operating on drained peat. Collectively, the Waikato’s drained peatlands produce 10-33 tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions per hectare each year.

The draining of peatlands in the Waikato region did far more damage, in terms of carbon emissions, than a small loss of forest area.



Read more:
Peat bogs: restoring them could slow climate change – and revive a forgotten world

But nevertheless, planting trees and increasing our forest area is an important and necessary contribution to climate mitigation, and often comes with a myriad of other benefits, far beyond carbon sequestration.

Sometimes it’s as easy as planting your own fruit trees around your house. They will capture carbon for years to come, and keep you from buying fruit that has been transported thousands of kilometres.

They might even motivate you to reduce food waste. Globally, about 25-30% of food goes to waste. If we reduced food waste, we could save agricultural land multiple times the size of New Zealand and plant trees there instead.

Sebastian Leuzinger receives funding from The Royal Society.

Do you answer emails outside work hours? Do you send them? New research shows how dangerous this can be

Originally published on theconversation.com

Scott Howes/AAP

What could be so bad about answering a few emails in the evening? Perhaps something urgent pops up, we are tidying up an issue from the day, or trying to get ahead for tomorrow. Always being online and available is one of the ways we demonstrate our work ethic and professionalism.

But the creep of digital communications into our entire lives is not as harmless as we think.

Our new research shows how prevalent out-of-hours communication is in the Australian university sector. And how damaging it is to our mental and physical health.

Our research

Colleagues and I are studying how digital communication impacts work stress, work-life balance, health and sleep in the university sector.

We surveyed more than 2,200 academic and professional employees across 40 universities from June to November 2020. We specifically looked at universities given the advancing technological changes in the sector and importance of universities to our economic, social and cultural prosperity.

Our results

We found high levels of stress along, with a significant amount of out-of-hours communication. This includes:

21% of respondents had supervisors who expected them to respond to work-related texts, calls and emails after work
55% sent digital communication about work in the evenings to colleagues
30% sent work-related digital communication to colleagues on the weekends, while expecting a same-day response.

Employees who had supervisors expecting them to respond to work messages after work, compared to groups who did not, reported higher levels of psychological distress (70.4% compared to 45.2%) and emotional exhaustion (63.5% compared to 35.2%). They also reported physical health symptoms, such as headaches and back pain (22.1% compared to 11.5%).

It’s not just horrible bosses

We also found the same pattern when it came to contact between colleagues.

Groups of employees who felt that they had to respond to work messages from colleagues outside of work hours, compared to groups who did not, also reported higher levels of psychological distress (75.9% compared to 39.3%). They also reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion (65.9% compared to 35.7%) and physical health symptoms (22.1% compared to 12.5%).



Read more:
As boundaries between work and home vanish, employees need a ‘right to disconnect’

Although the project team surveyed university employees, this is likely to reflect a society-wide problem of digital communication out-of-work hours. An Australia Institute survey last year showed Australians were working 5.3 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, up from 4.6 hours the year before.

Notably, 31% of employees in our sample reported a moderate or severe psychological disorder, and 62% said they thought the “psychosocial safety climate” – of their workplace — the degree to which it protected their psychological health — was “poor”.

By comparison, an estimated 20% of Australian adults have experienced a common mental disorder in the previous 12 months. A 2014 beyondblue survey, suggested 52% of employees find their workplace mentally healthy.

What does this mean?

The personal and social implications of blurred boundaries between home and work are serious. When employees are answering calls or responding to emails at home, this affects their recovery from work – both mentally and physically.

If you’re always checking emails, this means less space to recover from work.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance awaiting work notifications at home can affect metabolism and immunity, creating susceptibility to serious health problems such as infection, high blood pressure and depression. In fact, recent research by the World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation suggest that long work hours may even increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Another problem is that when we get work calls or emails out of hours, this also reduces the time for recovery activities such as social interaction, physical exercise and spending time in natural settings.

These are critical activities to maintain physical and particularly psychological health. The personal and social ramifications of work intrusion into home life also have the potential to hurt family relationships, and community supports, like volunteering.

Next steps

So what needs to happen now?

We can focus on the immediate problem and reduce the extent of digital connectivity out of work hours. Negotiating work conditions to address the problem like the Victoria Police has recently done is a good start. Amending the National Employment Standards to enforce the “right to disconnect” will also protect vulnerable low paid, non-unionised workers who do not have the capacity to negotiate their own work conditions.



Read more:
Long hours at the office could be killing you – the case for a shorter working week

But while these industrial regulations prevent managers from getting in touch, it won’t change the behaviour of colleagues hassling each other. Or the inward pressure many of us feel to work out of hours.

Workplace expert professor Maureen Dollard argues the problem of digital connectivity outside of standard work hours reflects a broader issue around the workplace culture and psychological health. When an organisation values productivity over psychological health, then employees will feel more pressure to manage unrealistic deadlines.

Ultimately, our problem with out-of-hours emails and messaging reflects broader societal issues relating to the pressures of productivity, job insecurity and diminishing work resources.

This work is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP190100853) (CIs Kurt Lushington, Tony Winefield, Silvia Pignata and Arnold Bakker) and the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship (FL200100025) awarded to Maureen Dollard. Research team members who have contributed to this work include Amy Zadow, Rachael Potter, Ali Afsharian and Amy Parkin.